After 48 years in L.A., the Rams left. The experience felt like a death for the city, Garcetti said, in the way it seemed both permanent and impossible to believe. But Los Angeles never needed the NFL as part of its identity, and it moved on. When the Rams returned three years ago, after a two-decade hiatus, the bond between city and team no longer felt simple.
“It was like a divorce and then 20 years later somebody asking you to fall in love again,” Garcetti said. “I think it takes a little time. But when they come back looking as good as they do right now, it makes falling in love again a lot easier.”
What the Rams look like is a juggernaut. On Sunday afternoon, the Rams will carry a 7-0 record, a prodigy of a head coach and a profanely talented roster into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against the Green Bay Packers.
Anywhere else in America, an undefeated NFL team beating teams by 15 points on average would be a dominant civic force. Here, it is different. The Dodgers are in the World Series, LeBron James is on the Lakers, and the box office totals come out every week. All the Rams do is win. But are they winning over Los Angeles?
The Rams’ first year back in L.A., 2016, brought curiosity and crowds of 90,000 packing the Coliseum, “but that was really like a sugar high, anyways,” Rams Executive Vice President of Football Operations Kevin Demoff said. Novelty wore off at the start of last year, and the Rams faded from the city’s consciousness, until they started winning and made the playoffs. Year 3 has provided a test. If this team cannot turn Los Angeles into an NFL town, then it’s hard to see what could.
“This is actually getting to how you build a fan base brick-by-brick, fan-by-fan, and get people to understand what the Rams are,” Demoff said. “It is a very crowded landscape we once had a lofty perch in. It’s going to take time to get back to that lofty perch. The way you do it, you play exciting football. You have players who people not only recognize but they like and understand. You have a coach who brings an exciting style of play.”
Los Angeles is the most crowded sports city in North America, a sporting scene made for an ark — there are, as Garcetti puts it, “two of everything:” Lakers and Clippers, Dodgers and Angels, Kings and Ducks, UCLA and USC, Galaxy and LAFC. There are also the Chargers, 5-2 this season, who for most Angelenos may as well play on the moon. Most NFL franchises dwarf their city’s sporting scene, but even as the league’s only undefeated team, the Rams blend in.
“In this market, they still need to be standing out in front raising their hand saying, ‘We’re here,’ ” said David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC.
The Rams are making people take notice. In the offseason, the Rams added a quartet of established stars — cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and wide receiver Brandin Cooks — to an 11-5 team. The moves added talent and created buzz, qualities of equal importance.
“They all made sound football sense,” Demoff said. “But that is how you become relevant here.”
The Rams are not only great. They are great in a style suited to Los Angeles. “It’s so many people out of central casting for an L.A. team,” Demoff said. It starts with the director. Coach Sean McVay has a thrilling, go-for-the-throat offense that leads the NFC in points. Running back Todd Gurley II is a touchdown-machine MVP candidate with A-list good looks. Quarterback Jared Goff is a first overall pick brimming with California cool.
“There’s a confidence, There’s a swagger. There’s something about a lot of guys on our team that makes you want to follow them,” McVay said.
Last year before the Rams’ opener against the Indianapolis Colts, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, a 13-year NFL veteran, looked around the Coliseum in shock. “Nobody was there,” Whitworth said. “It was hard to imagine the game was about to kick off. You would have thought that was an hour before the game.”
By late last season, that had changed. Wide receiver Robert Woods, who grew up in Gardena and played at USC, said the atmosphere at the Coliseum for last year’s playoff loss to Atlanta came close to what the ancient stadium felt like for a Trojans game. “Now,” he said, “we’re there.”
“The cover charge in Los Angeles to being relevant is winning,” Demoff said. “From there, your players have to be available in the community, and you have to have exciting superstars. Every team here that’s had success has been built on the backs of that. Growing up here, I remember those stars well. Everybody can talk about the ‘Showtime’ Lakers. I remember the Kings before Wayne Gretzky and after Wayne Gretzky.”
The Rams’ history both enriches and complicates its relationship with Los Angeles. When the Rams announced their move to St. Louis in 1994, Ralph Valdez, a lifelong fan then in his early 30s, gathered his Rams gear in a pile — a hat, sweaters, pennants and a key chain — and set the pile on fire. “I was done with them,” Valdez said. Then the 1995 season arrived, and he saw the horns on the helmets, and he felt the same connection he felt since he was 8 years old. His fandom overtook his bitterness.
In 2004, a group of die-hard Rams fans still living in the Los Angeles area started the So Cal Rams Booster Club. Valdez joined the group and eventually became the club’s president, the title he holds today. Valdez regrets burning his Rams memorabilia. But he also understands why the Rams have been slow to win back part of the generation of fans who won’t forgive them for leaving in the first place.
“There’s a lot of fans who are still not Ram fans even though they’re back,” Valdez said. “They were Ram fans, and they can’t quite recover. They feel very betrayed. . . . It’s going to take a few years for [the Rams] to take that feeling away. The winning is always going to help.”
On Tuesday, an hour before the first pitch of the World Series, Christena Quinn wore a Justin Turner Dodgers T-shirt and peered out the door of Brack Shop Tavern, where she works as the chef, hoping the happy hour crowd would start pouring in. She has seen an uptick in business on Sundays this season, which she attributed to the Rams’ success and a growth in their fan base.
Quinn can attest to both the Rams’ tradition and the effect their success could have on the next generation of L.A. football fans. She has photos of herself wearing a Rams sweater at 2 years old. This fall she called her mother, who lives in Rhode Island, and asked whether she could ship out the sweater, in hopes it would fit her 6-year-old.
“It was our team coming back,” Quinn said. “I think people would have been really bummed if it was another team moving to L.A. and not the Rams. We always knew they would.”
Harris Rosner, the owner of VIP Tickets, said 90 percent of tickets for Sunday’s game are selling for $200 to $500, more than double the price for the Rams’ first three home games. He partially credited the way Green Bay fans travel but also senses more interest in the local team. Around town, he has noticed a third topic of sports conversation, after the Dodgers and Lakers.
“You would never have the Rams as part of that the last three years,” Rosner said. “A lot of that has started to happen the last three weeks.”
To gauge the city’s tastes, Rosner rides his bike along the Venice boardwalk and counts the number of people wearing a team’s gear. “Right now, the thing I notice the most by far is Dodger colors,” Rosner said. “Second, it’s Lakers colors. But I am starting to see some Rams being sported. We’re starting to see it accelerate to the next level.”
The complexion of Los Angeles makes it difficult for a local team to dominate. The city attracts people from all over the country, and they bring their favorite teams with them. For 22 years, transplants didn’t even have the option of switching to a local team. There are now two NFL teams here, but among the population, there might as well be 30.
“We’re competing with the Packers and the Cowboys and the Steelers and the Patriots and all of those teams as much as we are the Chargers,” Demoff said.
One team presents an acute challenge. The Oakland Raiders, who occupied Los Angeles from 1982 to 1994, maintain a strong hold on the city. The legendary rap group N.W.A. made the Raiders’ silver and black a cultural touchstone in the late ’80s, and it remains so today. Among 18 Angelenos asked whether the city contained more Rams or Raiders fans, 14 said Raiders, two said Rams and two were split.
“They’re trying to make it more of a Rams city,” said outfielder Matt Kemp, who rejoined the Dodgers this season after playing in Los Angeles from 2006 through 2014. “But there’s [still] a lot more Raiders fans out there in L.A. than there are Rams fans, I think. . . . But you can’t ignore the fact that the Rams are the best team in football right now, and Todd Gurley is one of the best running backs I’ve ever seen in my life. They have an unbelievable team.”
The city’s lingering connection to the Raiders may only intensify in 2020, when the Raiders move to Las Vegas, about a four-hour drive away. “I joke that by the Raiders moving to Las Vegas, we’ve really got three teams,” Garcetti said. “You can get on a plane and probably be at the Vegas stadium more quickly than getting through some crosstown traffic to get to Inglewood.”
But even Angelenos who believe the Raiders remain more popular admit the Rams are gaining ground. Their success has enlivened die-hards, but it also has created a bandwagon.
“It doesn’t hurt that they’re undefeated,” said J.C. Cortez, a bartender at Beer Belly in Koreatown. “Half those fans weren’t there a year ago.”
Woods, who grew up a Raiders fan, could sense a new kind of life in the Rams’ previous home game, a Thursday night romp over Minnesota. He saw celebrities in the stands — after he scored a touchdown, ran through the end zone and flipped the ball to the rapper YG. There were 72,000 in attendance, screaming as football’s most dominant team scored 38 points.
“You kind of look around, and you say, ‘This is what the league envisioned in their move back to Los Angeles,’ ” Demoff said.
The Rams have played three straight road games since. On the flights home, Demoff would peer out the window as the plane approached Los Angeles International Airport and see the construction of Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park, the Inglewood stadium and entertainment district the Rams, spearheaded by owner Stan Kroenke, have spent years conceiving. “I can’t wait to get into that building,” Demoff said.
“It feels like the second golden age of the Rams has begun,” Garcetti said. “This is one my daughter and her generation can grow up on and say: ‘Oh, gosh. I can’t believe I live in the city where the Rams are.’ ”
It seems naive, on its face, to cast the NFL’s return to Los Angeles as something beyond a massive business transaction. The NFL creates billions in revenue every season. Garcetti boasts about the city’s $1 trillion economy. The Rams will move into a stadium in two years that could end up costing nearly $5 billion.
But the way a sports team connects with a city, especially when it has history, can transcend cynicism. Quinn, the chef, said her uncle is a father figure for her, and she grew up watching Rams games with him in Whittier, just up the freeway. Just before the Rams returned, he lost his son.
When the announcement happened, Quinn called him to talk about the Rams. They screamed and yelled in joy, at least for that moment. “It was such a light among a dark time,” Quinn said. Her uncle has still not been to a Rams game. She can’t wait to take him.
Dave Sheinin in Boston contributed to this report.